It’s been 12 months since I visited Rochefort, where reconstruction of the frigate Hermione is happening. A great deal has happened to both of us in this time and seeing her again was one of the highlights of the trip to Poitou-Charentes.
She is now floating; a few months ago she sailed the short distance from her dry dock on the River Charente to her new residence. It must have been an amazing sight; there were many that did not believe it would float at all. It must have been a day of great celebration and emotion; it seems likely that there were many tears shed as she made the short journey to her new dock.
Arriving at the site, we got an enticing glimpse of the frigate, just the bow but resplendent in her fresh coat of paint. I had anticipated this since arriving in the Poitou-Charentes region and could not wait to see how she appeared now.
However it is necessary to pass through the tented museum where the history and reconstruction process is explained. There are a number of displays, including exhibits about the rigging, carving and sail making along with photographs and written descriptions.
It is meeting the people who are making this project a success that inspires the most however. These are the individuals that have made sacrifices and given up a great deal of their time working on the ship, many have been here from the start.
People like Anne that has been laboriously stitching the sails for several years, often by hand and tarring the base ropes to make sure they are waterproof and won’t rot. Although there are others that help her, she has responsibility for production of most of the sails. It is a slow process, which dependent on the size can take several months to produce a single sail.
There are normally around 30 people working on the ship at any time. There is still a great deal of carving or rigging to be worked on and of course the sails. To date however, there is only one member of the crew that is designated to sail when she completes the historic journey to Boston recreating the voyage of La Fayette to join Washington in the American War of Independence. His name is Ludwig and he is the bo’sun.
He is responsible for the running of the ship before and during the voyage, making sure she is sea worthy throughout. He needs a jack of all trades with knowledge of all aspects of sailing a frigate, though I have a feeling he is also a master of many. He spent some of his precious time explaining the difficulties of the project and although he is one of the more recent arrivals his pride in L’Hermione is obvious.
Ludwig in common with many of the team comes from a background of sailing and appears to have drifted naturally to the building and sailing of tall ships. Devoting so much time to one project, learning new skills along the way means they will be valuable on similar projects in the future, it almost seems a calling and requires great passion.
Our guide around L’Hermione was Isabelle, one of the main driving forces and has been with it for many years. It soon becomes clear she is the source of much of the passion; she is extremely dedicated and single-minded providing the inspiration to the team. Raising funds, organising events or dealing with the press and public is undoubtedly a fulltime task which she performs admirably.
These are a few of the public members of the team working tirelessly to make sure the project comes to fruition. There is a score of unsung heroes which often volunteer their help, providing the necessary labour and drive to complete the reconstruction without praise or recognition. It is worth reiterating from last year’s visit that up to 8000 craftsmen once worked on the original.
After the fascinating insights into the rebuilding process, it was with some anticipation that we stepped back out into the sunshine to see how much she had progressed since the last time I saw her.
Despite her attractive livery of blue and yellow, the first thing that is quite striking is that she actually looks smaller now. This is probably due to the confided space of her former home in the dry dock. However she still looks very impressive and it is understandable how emotional it must have been for the team to see her floating even for such a short journey.
Apart from her paint job now visible without the scaffolding, the progress in a short year although not immediately clear nonetheless had me impressed. This is especially true of the continued attention to detail, such as the now complete sculpted figurehead. This is a French lion which is one of the small differences from the original vessel, as she had an English lion. The cannon bases are in place too, a long line waiting for the fitting of thereplica arsenal. Numbering 34 cannon in total, when fully armoured she must have been a formidable vessel.
The visit was unfortunately far too short but still very inspiring, I look forward to revisiting it again soon, she already feels like a friend and witnessing her progress. There is still some way to go, with a great deal of fund-raising still required and every visitor makes a small difference. It is a fascinating project and worth taking the time to visit.
The plan is for her to set sail for the United States in March 2015, travelling along the east coast until finally reaching Boston on Independence Day. It remains an ambitious project, one worthy of success that it will be amazing to witness. I’m keeping my diary free for sure.